Recently in my Th121 class we had to watch a documentary entitled The Human Experience, and whilst watching the film I could not help but draw similarities between the takeaway of the film and the insights in our class. In the film, we are shown the Azize brothers who lived in a Franciscan home in New York City because of their dysfunctional family lives. The documentary follows their attempts to understand the human experience, the interplay between being and suffering; albeit I think that a lot of their attempts are half-baked and self-servient. There were many insights that were all rooted in comparison and “how lucky they were” which I found to border on sounding privileged and white savior concepts.
Despite this, there are still great insights on the human experience. In his The Mystery of Being, Gabriel Marcel discusses the connection between the sadness of the finite and the broken world. He says that the world we live in now is already broken and that much of human sadness is rooted in our attempt to infinitize the finite. Humans have long tried to infinitize money because of greed, but we are shown the humbling experiences that the Azize brothers had from living homeless in New York City to visiting leper colonies in Africa.
The contemporary human experience is important in the study of theology. God’s revelation is his offer of life and love, it is constant and ongoing and it can be seen in our experiences. God speaks to us through the contemporary human experience. However, this existence of suffering highlights the difficulties of empiricism and theologism in the pole of contemporary human experience. The question now is, how do we integrate an inherently broken world and the existence of a God that is supposed to be loving and compassionate?
Theologism poses a problematic view on human suffering because it justifies suffering because it is supposedly God’s will. This realization can be matched with Marcel’s first step of reflection, wherein something emerges as different from what you have thought before. But then you realize that it is different or difficult to absorb because you have isolated the experience. Theologism isolates human suffering to its objectivity, we have reduced it to just that difficult situation. But Marcel urges us to take a second step in reflection, wherein we try to recover true insight by looking at things from a bigger perspective, finding its context, and returning the unity. We cannot isolate experiences because none of them are objective. Everything occurs because of certain circumstances or contexts put together, not necessarily a reason but a causation. Because of this, we must analyze and reflect deeper and try to find what God is saying through these experiences of human suffering.
Paul Ricoeur tells us that reflection in itself is an act of hope, because our end goal is understanding in order to take action. One perspective is that suffering occurs because there is a compassionate God who will alleviate it through other people and other means. But it can also be difficult to see the hope in it. Then again, much of human sadness, not suffering, comes from trying to infinitize the finite. In the documentary we are shown people who have received the short end of the stick, yet they are still happy and content; because they have seen the finite and broken world yet choose to be thankful to still have taken part in the beauty of that limited world.
Thus, human experience, bad or good, will still be an act of God’s revelation. He works in mysterious ways that are difficult to understand from our own viewpoints, however these experiences will always be open to interpretation; and it is up to us to choose how to understand those situations. With experiences of suffering we can either be immobilized by the pain or we can choose to be proactive and do something about it. God has already taken action by revealing his life and goodness to us, it is up to us to take action and reframe it to our own contexts. We can disagree and not find any reason in these experiences of suffering, but we must still do something to change the situation.
Essentially, we have to find the balance with these sobering realities and our beliefs. Faith is not just about taking in everything we can from the scriptures and experiences, it is about what we can do to enrich these experiences, your faith, and the well-being of others. We must not let these memories of suffering paralyze us and stop our faith. Paul Ricoeur talks of a happy memory—with just enough forgetting, and enough remembering.